Short Story Review: Notes on a Suicide by Rana Dasgupta

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I feel poisoned: the figments are both overwrought and vacant. I want to know what my friends are feeling but would prefer a conversation over a café crème or good bottle of wine. Why status updates and short videos instead of living in the moment? Obviously a traitor to my generation, I recently marooned myself in Europe for a short time. While strolling through Shakespeare & Co., I bought a fitting souvenir: a copy of Granta 140: The Mind (The Magazine of New Writing), the summer 2017 edition of the journal for up-and-coming writers. In white lettering across the cover, the title of this edition, "State of Mind," contrasts sharply with the black background and a vaguely Egyptian figurine in a blurry blue photograph sits eerily in the center. The editors' introduction sets the tone aptly:

What's in a state of mind? How do we describe emotions, or the complex relationship between individuals and the state?

Each essay is exceptionally written, but the lead piece, "Notes on a Suicide," by Rana Dasgupta, struck a particular chord because of its views on poverty and social media. So many acts of suicide lately have been broadcast on social media and Dasgupta traces this trend to the mysterious Océane, a young Frenchwoman of Polish-Turkish decent living in a poor Paris suburb. Dasgupta expertly weaves the history of Parisian suburbia with its disaffected youth, social media culture and the rise of a class of celebrity "nobodies," and the desire to reclaim what the malcontent want most: their identities, their futures, themselves. While I have very little in common with Oceana or her suicidal follow-ons, I certainly recognize the need for identity and both the promise and the failure of social media to provide much of one.

Dasgupta spends several pages illuminating the history of the Parisian suburb. This seems interesting but unrelated at first, yet by the fourth page, the relevance is clear. The suburbs:

...are quite effectively quarantined by the Paris-region railway system...No one ever went unless they lived there, and--since visiting a town even five kilometres away could necessitate journeys into Paris and out again--there was a suffocating sense of isolation from everything around.

Isolation even in an increasingly connected world: shouldn't social media cure this malady? The author describes the mid-day betting on horse races, the graffiti along the train tracks, the high number of single-parent homes, and the anti-terrorism signs posted by the Paris police. These descriptions paint a picture of hopelessness and anger, the very same hopelessness and anger, the author argues, that makes these suburbs fertile ground for jihadists.

Recently it hit international press when it was revealed that Amedy Coulibably grew up in one of the Grigny's housing blocks; a self-declared member of ISIS, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 he went on three separate shooting sprees in Paris, ending up in a siege in a Jewish supermarket in Porte de Vincennes where he was shot dead by the police. But Grigny's notoriety brings about no change and it remains one of the most depressed places in Western Europe: drug-blanched zombies totter in the streets and mothers dream of one thing for their children--getting them out.

This desolate suburbia is the backdrop for Dasgupta's thesis:

...are tattoos, like the graffiti on the RER tracks, an attempt to deface--and so stake a claim to -- public premises? An attempt to spite their own absentee landlords, who have proven so profoundly indifferent to their minds and souls? In which case, suicide would be a form of destruction of public property.

The foreshadowing begins once the author arrives in the suburb of Égly, not Grigny but similar, the former home of Océane.

...I get off the train. DANGER! says a sign on the platform. DO NOT STEP ONTO THE TRACKS.

The story is simple enough: an unhappy teenager and minor social media celebrity living in depressed Parisian suburbia commits suicide over live video stream. Her backstory is typical for the region: no relationship with her macho, nightclub-owning father, an abusive ex-boyfriend, and a 20-hour per week job at an old folks home where "I've seen people die."

"What would make me happy?" she said, in one of her few protracted outbursts. "Nothing, that's the point. I've got to the stage where nothing can make me happy any more. I can't even find the energy to get out of bed in the morning. You realise that one person can completely poison your life. Our relationship completely destroyed me but he can't understand that because he's a person with no empathy..."

This person she describes is her ex-boyfriend, who had raped her and documented it on Snapchat, another social media service. She hatched a plot to commit suicide and broadcast it on Periscope, a livestreaming video service owned by Twitter. Her fans knew only that she had something memorable planned.

Suicide then became a technical project, whose organisational demand gave her sudden energy and purpose. She spoke during the sessions about her strategic decisions: "The advantage of Periscope is that everyone can see it and your broadcast is archived for twenty-four hours." She gave people detailed instructions about how they could access the feed, and what they could do if they missed it.

Then the moment she planned had arrived:

Just before 4.30 p.m., she took her phone, still broadcasting, went out of the house...and walked to Égly station...

The account is increasingly morbid as Océane is teased and cat-called by her followers, and then they slowly realize what is happening.

This girl has no life...She's a whore...She's going to commit suicide, you'll see...Kill yourself...Don't kill yourself for a guy...There's a train fuck. Fuck. She jumped under a train...RIP.

The world can be a horrible, ugly place.

The author argues that suicides on social media, like suicide bombings, are "exits" for the young who feel especially oppressed:

Though we are familiar with the statistics of our monopolistic era, we are far less conversant with its spiritual effects...This malaise is felt most keenly by the young, who have seen nothing during their lifetimes save the progressive re-exclusion of the majority from society's wealth, and who embark on adulthood with very little hope that they will be able to "make it" as their parents and grandparents did.

Importantly:

This is why the allure of exit haunts dispossessed French youth today.

It is a morbid topic, suicide, but an important one. The vapidity of social media culture combined with despondent youth searching for identity gives rise to important questions: how can one find meaning when your "future" seems owned by a state that has forgotten you? When faced with utter despair, how do you repossess yourself without destroying yourself in process? Rana Dasgupta does the young people of Parisian suburbia a service by shedding light on their situation, telling Océane's story, and raising these questions for us.


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